Regional Marketing in BC

Regional associations of wineries (sometimes blandly referred to as “generic marketing bodies” in the wine industry) are not a new phenomena in B.C. They lurk in the background of tastings and marketing campaigns in the Okanagan, Vancouver, and other key markets. I’m not even sure that many consumers are all that familiar with them specifically and perhaps that’s not a bad thing. They are kind of under-the-radar organizations that represent many (and sometimes, but rarely, all) of the wineries within a given geographical region. They publish maps and buy advertising space on behalf of their wineries. When asked to name one of these organizations, I suspect that most wine tourists wouldn’t be able to name more than one or two if any at all. When I produced the “BC Wine 101” series of podcasts and posts about each region in advance of the 2013 Wine Bloggers’ Conference in Penticton, it was the representatives from each of these organizations that I consulted and interviewed for the podcasts. They are great for learning about each region but their real value is promoting all of the member wineries. They are worth getting to know because many host amazing events (Similkameen BBQ King, Naramata Tailgate Party, etc) and some of their websites have lots of great information for planning  your next wine tour.

So, have you been to all of these?

The Associations

Naramata was the first unofficial subregion to begin promoting itself as a destination through the Naramata Bench Wineries Association. As a result, wine tourists who come to the Okanagan are more familiar with or have heard more about Naramata wineries than any other region. It is ironic today that a region is that essentially on a road to nowhere is the first place that people want to go. That’s a testament to the success of the continued marketing behind the Naramata wine brand. It wasn’t an overnight success but has surely paid off well to the member wineries and non-member wineries alike. The Naramata Tailgate Party in September is always a hit and spring tasting events held in key markets ensures that there is never a dull moment for lovers of Naramata wine. It’s a strategy that has worked with the results clearly on display at any Naramata winery on any day of the week during the summer. As a touring region, Naramata probably draws the most people daily because the wineries are conveniently close together and most are within a very short drive from Penticton.

Across the lake the wineries in Summerland’s Bottleneck Drive have organized themselves with some fantastic events to promote their region. The pre-Christmas Light Up the Vines events are a pre-Christmas wonderland of activity that is a rare off-season event in the Okanagan. Wine tasting on a cold winter evening is quite a different experience and Summerland is a spectacular place to do it, showcasing each winery’s unique landscape and Christmas light display. As a touring region, Summerland is a fascinating diversity of landscapes which makes it completely different from Naramata’s views (Oh look – a vineyard. Oh look – the lake). Giants Head mountain is the may poll around which the wine tourists spin, stopping at wineries that could overlook a deep canyon, a bucolic farming valley, or even (yes) a lake.

The Oliver Osoyoos Winery Association represents the largest geographical region in the Okanagan Valley compared to the others and also currently has the largest number of member wineries (36). Hosting events like the Pig Out, the wildly popular Half-Corked Marathon, and Cactus Jalopies, OOWA’s events take place mostly in the early part of the summer from May through to July. The exception is the Winter in Wine Country which is held in late November. As a wine touring region, the Oliver Osoyoos region is big. You can’t see it in a day so don’t try. You will miss wineries so just note which ones they are and try again next time. This is the best place to spend an entire week because you can tour every day and not hit the same winery again, unless you want to. The vineyards are more impressive here because they are bigger and so are many of the wineries. Like the Westside there are boutiques and commercial productions here but many of the wineries are solidly medium size productions. This is the best region to tour at any time of the year since many wineries remain open all year. Vineyards in the winter are every bit as beautiful as they are in the summer.

toplogo-finalThe Okanagan Falls Wineries Association represents the wineries in the region around the town of Okanagan Falls. It’s a town that many wine tourists (myself included at one point) drive through without stopping while on the way to somewhere else. The valley narrows here and wineries are far less visible than in any other region in B.C. Most tourist brochures feature a stunning view of MacIntyre Bluff with Blue Mountain Vineyards in the foreground which is just south of Okanagan Falls so it’s a shame that some wine tourists just won’t get off the highway. The big event is their Party in the Park held in July and is always a great summer BBQ beach party. As a touring region, Okanagan Falls offers diversity. Looking for rich reds, aromatic whites, top notch bistros, or stunning views? It’s all there nestled among the most narrow and geographically bizarre area of the Okanagan. 

The Similkameen Wineries Association brings the thunder at the historic Grist Mill every July with the Similkameen Barbeque King competition. Representing the majority of wineries in this unique valley just west of Oliver and Osoyoos, the Similkameen wineries often get passed by too quickly by drivers on Route 3 who are eager to get to their Osoyoos or Kootenay vacation destinations. As a touring region the Similkameen suffers from being farther away from the Okanagan (where there are more accommodations) and being on the road to the Okanagan. The more adventurous wine tourist are richly rewarded for venturing here however because the valley is filled with small, family run, boutique-style wineries that are making wines on a whole new level.

wineislandsThe Wine Islands Vintners Association represents wineries on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands making it the only association that spans two VQA Designated Viticultural Areas. There’s lots to do here and in my opinion, if the Okanagan is our Napa, the Islands are our Sonoma. Ok, the size ratio is way off but the agricultural focus is not. The Islands are not only focused on wine. There is a lot of food-related agri-tourism integrated seamlessly with wine along with ciders, mead, and other fine beverages. In an area that seems completely odd (aka not dry) for grape growing, creative wines are made here that are finally starting to develop a wider following. As a touring region, there is no way to get through this place in a day or even a week. There are too many nooks, crannies, and ferry schedules to contend with. It’s a great place to explore by following your nose, letting one thing lead to another.

In the far north of the Okanagan (where it is technically not even the Okanagan anymore) is the Shushwap Wineries, which have developed a website promoting wine tourism in their region. It’s not really a new wine region (Larch Hills has been around for years) nor are grapes completely new to the area (first vineyard was in 1907, before Oliver even existed). The northern latitude means that they must use different grapes than in the Okanagan but to me, this is what makes it interesting. As a wine touring region, the Shushwap is convenient for travellers on the Trans-Canada highway but like the Similkameen, has to work a little harder to get people off the road long enough to try their wines. It’s a different style of wine making and it’s a style that I think is unique to B.C. and worth checking out.

And then there’s Kelowna…

Although the first winery in the Okanagan was in Kelowna, it has unfortunately remained the latecomer to the regional marketing game. Confusingly, it is also the most disparate with at four smaller regions represented by associations. (Maybe they need an association of associations?) Thankfully recent years have seen a concerted effort on the part of wineries here to organize themselves into associations to attract wine tourists as that sector grows more competitive. Starting in Kelowna, the organizations loosely follow the compass.

The largest region near Kelowna actually across the lake in West Kelowna. The Westside Wine Trail represents the biggest diversity of wineries (in terms of production size) within the smallest geographical area. There are all sizes of wines from garages and quonsets to large commercial production facilities, organic producers to, well, not organic producers. Mission Hill tends to top the pyramid here as an attraction and literally sits atop of Mount Boucherie. Other wineries are tucked neatly into their vineyards on the slopes looking east. It’s difficult to imagine an organization that can represent the myriad interests of such a diverse group but the Westside Wine Trail does it and apparently quite successfully. As a touring region, everything is relatively close together just like in Naramata which makes it easy to spend the whole day there. Many wineries are also open year round.

Fab5

Kelowna’s Fab 5 Wineries represents the wineries on the benchland east of Kelowna, historically known as the K.L.O. Benches (named after the Kelowna Land and Orchard Company that subdivided the land in the late 19th century). As the name suggests, there are 5 wineries in this group which is a perfect leisurely wine touring day trip. The wineries are all small, boutique productions and many are quite fun and creative with their marketing image. As a wine touring region, it seems like a completely different world even though Kelowna is so close. The views of the valley and lake are unique and far more expansive than in any other wine region. There is a lot of history here as well since First Nations, fur trappers, pioneers, ranchers, and orchardists all recognized the beauty of this part of the Okanagan.

lakeshoreThe Lakeshore Wine Route encompasses four wineries on the south side of Kelowna. The wineries operate some of the oldest continually producing vineyards in BC. CedarCreek has been operating as a winery the longest while Tantalus’s vineyards are older but has been a winery for less time. The established winery names draw visitors here because, just like Naramata, this is a road to nowhere. People have to want to come here rather than just stop off on their way to somewhere else. They have been flocking there for years which is a testament to the quality of the wines produced there. As a wine touring region, the Lakeshore wine route is geographically small and makes an excellent afternoon tour destination. Eager tourists who head there in the crisp morning will find it even better with less crowds and beautiful views of the lake in the morning.

scenicLast on the scene is the Scenic Sip, an exciting new association that includes wineries north of Kelowna in the area known as Lake Country. Like Summerland, there is a wide diversity of landscapes to see at each stop, making this an aptly named wine trail. There’s a lot of energy here from the younger wineries which pairs well with the long-established wineries like Gray Monk, who have been successfully attracting people to drive up Camp Creek Road for almost 35 years. As a wine touring region, this is the first place that people can see flying into Kelowna. You are literally mere minutes away from your first winery wine tasting coming out of the airport. The higher elevation of wineries like Gray Monk and 50th Parallel mean that there is a much grander view of Okanagan Lake than anywhere else in the valley. The lake itself is more narrow here, more steeply walled, and far more green compared to Osoyoos’s brown. Worth a day trip but it may take you a little longer to get to all of the wineries here in the summer so plan extra time.

“Emerging” regions

kamloopsNewest on the scene is the Kamloops Wine Trail. It’s so new that I haven’t actually visited this region yet. It’s absolutely on my list and I look forward to heading there. With hot summer temperatures, the Kamloops area has a lot of potential for growing grapes. It’s the winters that will make or break this region, not only in terms of viticulture but also for visitors. There has been some great social media promotion and interaction from this region. It’s also exciting to be able to see the early days of a future wine region which makes now the time to see Kamloops.

Other Regions

The wineries in the Kootenays are not yet organized into an association and perhaps it is still too soon in their development. The Fraser Valley used to have a winery association but that quietly disappeared, at least online. Perhaps a new group of winery owners will feel the need to come together and promote their region.

So have fun touring one (or many) of B.C’s wine regions. Let me know about your experiences. Please post a comment if you have any questions. Happy wine trails and cheers from wine country!

~Luke

Off-Season Wine Touring

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

No crowds means lots of time to learn about the wines.

Touring off-season is awesome. Here’s why.

  • Lots of winery action to see (in the fall during harvest).
  • No crowds.
  • Special wine tastings.
  • No crowds.
  • Undivided attention of the wine shop staff.
  • Beautiful scenery (colours in the fall, snowy vineyards in the winter)

Sometimes there’s other treats to be had, especially if there’s a regional festival or promotion going on such as OOWA’s Winter in Wine Country or Summerland’s Light Up the Vines.

This biggest piece of advice I can give to anyone looking to tour wine country in the off-season is this:

Call first.

Like, with an actual phone. Call the winery and find out if they are open and what their hours are. Do not rely on Google, websites (wineries are notoriously slow at updating their own sites), app or blog (including this one) to tell you what the current hours are for any winery.  (I had a customer complain to me the other day that Google told her that we were open until 6pm. I told her that we had changed our hours and that we were now open only until 4pm. She then asked why it was listed on Google as being open until 6. I calmly explained that we can’t control Google’s content but in my mind, I face-palmed.) Use the phone and talk to a human.

I used to create a list of wineries that were open in the off-season and some of them are still generally open throughout the year. I’ve stopped trying to update the list since it becomes a crazy case of tracking down information that just isn’t easily available. The general rule of thumb is that the bigger the winery, the more likely it is to be open year-round. They will also be closer to larger towns and on main routes like Highway 97. Some of them may have restricted their hours (again, call first, don’t Google) for the off-season and likely have reduced staff as well. Always book ahead if you’re thinking of arriving with a big group (more than 6).

Wine Availability

It’s important to know that not all wines will be available. If you are looking for that fresh and lovely aromatic white wine in the late fall, chances are pretty good that it will have sold out long ago at the winery. Likewise touring in the early spring might mean that the next vintage of your favourite big red won’t be released until mid-July. Some wineries have set schedules for releasing their wines because they know how their wines react in production and plan accordingly. Others release their wines as soon as the previous vintage has sold out. Very few wineries release their wines only when the wine is deemed ready by the wine maker or winery owner. These last two scenarios mean that any particular wine could very likely be released at any time of the year. The best thing is to follow the winery’s website or through social media in advance of your trip and actually ask them directly.

A new experience

Plan on taking your time. I’ve had some of the best experiences in wine shops in the off-season both as a customer and as a wine shop sales person because I wasn’t in a rush. I’ve had many great conversations and learned a ton of information about wine at these times. I remember going to visit a winery for the first time in July and feeling irritated that there were so many other people around. I didn’t get have even half of the experience that I’d hoped for. It wasn’t the winery’s fault, it was mine because I expected to have an experience that was just not possible at that time of year. I still avoid going to wineries in the height of summer if I can. I also see very little industry visiting the wineries during the summer where I’ve worked.

Be considerate of their time

Also note, if you are going to call your favourite small winery and get them out to open their wine shop for you, you’d better be in the mood for making a big purchase. And just so we’re clear, 4 bottles of wine is not a big purchase at most small wineries. It may be big for some but it’s hardly worth opening up a wine shop for only a few bottles. You should be willing to purchase upwards of a half-case minimum (6 bottles) but a full case is more like it. This precludes the whole ‘shopping around’ experience that is much easier to do in the summer. I recommend only visiting wineries that you are at least somewhat familiar with and know that you enjoy their wines. Nothing is more annoying to a winery owner as opening up a wine shop, talking about and maybe pouring wines for a half-hour only to have the people say thanks and leave. Do your research first and be ready to load up the car. Buy a bottle at a VQA or private liquor store first to see if you like the wine before making the call to the winery.

Have a great time touring wine country in the winter. Don’t forget your camera – it’s pretty here all the time! Cheers from wine country!

~Luke

End of the Run

20140214-125934.jpgAnd so it goes. Another season is winding down. Time to rest, or hibernate, over the winter until waking up renewed in the spring, ready for a new season. Just hoping I don’t have any big expenses during hibernation.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the grapes? Yeah, them too. You see here in the Okanagan, it’s the end of employment season, when most little worker bees like myself are out of work. In 7 years I’ve lived in the Okanagan, I have had 1 year of full-time employment over the winter and about 3 years of part-time (3/4 time -which I thought at the time was pretty good) employment. It’s the single biggest thing that makes it very difficult to stay here. When I tell people that my music career is really supporting my wine career, the truth is I’m not really kidding. Before moving to the Okanagan, I’d heard rumblings about the “Sunshine Tax” but I thought that they were kidding. They were not. People who live here choose to live here but not because of the money, that’s for sure. Or if they have money, they didn’t get it while they were living here.

When I travelled to Winnipeg last summer, I kept meeting many people my own age who were on vacation with their young families. Aside from the joy of being able to talk to people of a similar age (that doesn’t happen often in the Okanagan), what I got out of most of those conversations was that the Okanagan was not a place where one can easily make a living. It’s a constant struggle sometimes. That was behind the genesis of the Wine Country BC’s podcasts – something to do until another opportunity arises. That’s my theory as to why blogs are so popular right now. They are something for Gen-X’s to do until they can get to do what they really want when the Boomers retire. Unfortunately, the Boomers are retiring but their shoes are being filled with the Millenials that are younger and clearly a safer long-term investment. The question now is, can I really keep things afloat by staying in the Okanagan?

Only time will tell but as things are headed towards the jobless section again this year, I’m rethinking what it takes to make a living in the wine industry here. I love talking and writing about wine. I love helping people learn about it and sharing experiences about it. Hence the outlet for me that is this very blog / website that you are reading right now. However, I’m learning that just like starting a winery, blogging (or writing) is very much like a winery – you can’t really make at any money at it and the people that are able to start it up quickly are the ones who are already generally well off anyway. I’ve seen lots of bloggers come in for free tastings and schmoozing before heading off in their BMW. Blogging is obviously not a career that would pay for such a vehicle so is is it more of a hobby for them? Maybe a pastime?

Wine, fine wine in particular, is sometimes seen as a highbrow beverage that is only appreciated by the richer classes. Certainly there is an element of that but I would argue that that is also true of other items. It used to be cellphones were only for the rich (or perpetually busy) because they were the only ones who could afford them (or needed them). Perhaps in the future, cars with gasoline engines will be only for the well-heeled. That’s not really a stretch to predict that kind of change in our world, but it’s safe to say that there will always be some form of social stratification out there for anything, including wine.

Wine is quite simply food. It is an important food culturally, nutritionally, and socially. Civilization as we know it in the western world sprang from the grapes on the vines. There’s a reason why it’s mentioned in the Bible and other similarly ancient texts. Wine production pre-dates literacy. We drink wine with others to have funny stories to tell our kids. I believe that is, in essence, the meaning of wine in a nutshell. It’s really that simple.

Blogging and podcasting have always been something that have interested me and I will continue to do so even after making my millions. Regardless of what the future holds for me, as long as there is enough fascination with the world of wine and the desire to write about it or record it, I will be posting here from wine country. As long as I have wine to drink, I will no doubt have funny stories to tell.

Cheers!

~Luke

Let’s go food truckin’ – The Food Trucks of Oliver

** Update July 2015 – Food trucks are sometimes transient and their locations can change often. Some changes have happened to the food trucks in this article since it was written. The Beach Bums have “upgraded” to an actual location but in Osoyoos at the Petro Canada on Route 3 heading east out of town. Hammer’s has recently moved north of town to the parking lot of Lion’s park. Follow both of them on Facebook for the latest information since they don’t have websites of their own. **

I started Wine Country BC for a number of reasons. One of which was to provide a little local knowledge for tourists who come to visit BC’s most famous wine region. Why was that an issue, you ask? It’s because when I was working at a busy wine store in Penticton, I would get questions like this:

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Customer: Do you have any suggestions for where the best wineries are?
Me: Sure, there are lots of places. What kind of wines do you like?
Customer: Big reds.
Me: Well those are all around but most of those varieties are grown in the south between Oliver and Osoyoos. The valley looks different in the south and if you’ve never been, I’d recommend going there for the day.
Customer: Um, yeah, we looked at that on the map, but, it looks really far. Are there any gas stations there?
Me: Uh…
Customer: We weren’t sure if there were going to be restaurants or anything down there.
Me: …
Customer: We’ve been to Naramata before. Maybe we’ll just go there again.

With apologies to my sister, who is a writer, you can’t make this kind of stuff up. Although it many ways, I wish that I had. Apparently, the world beyond McIntyre Bluff is seen as a wild, untamed hinterland, inhospitable and dangerous for urbanites to explore without a standard-issue SUV and a Starbucks. Misinformed though it was, this was not the only conversation of this type that I had that summer.

The idea for Wine Country BC began that day.

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This leads me to a more recent addition to our list of secret wine touring information that may not yet be on the radar of wine tourists. The food truck phenomena has come to the Okanagan. Food trucks have been all the rage in cities like Portland for years and Vancouver has caught on lately as well. You may be surprised to know that the town of Oliver (now with 3 traffic lights) has 4 – count ’em – 4 food trucks – all on Highway 97 and each with their specialty.

Hammer’s House of Hog – The second truck to appear in Oliver in 2011 set up shop south of Oliver on Highway 97. Hammer specializes in authentic southern BBQ, not grilling, but real smoked brisket, ribs tips, and pork shoulder roasts cooked in two large smokers. Like an olfactory billboard, it is impossible not to smell the wonderful smokey aromas when you pass on the highway. The pulled pork sandwiches are unbeatable and come with a choice of 4 house-made sauces and coleslaw.

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Beach Bum Lunch Box – My heart skipped a beat when I first tasted the Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches made by Quebecois Marguerite and Charles. As a frequent visitor to Ben’s in Montreal when I lived in Quebec, I learned what smoked meat should really be and smoked meat at Beach Bum is the closest to the real thing that I’ve tasted outside of Quebec. The most diverse menu of the food trucks, you can get pizzas, nachos, wraps, and paninis. Et biensure, ils ont des hotdogs steamé.

Jampee’s Thai Kitchen – The most recent addition and the farthest outside of the town of Oliver, Jampee moved her business from West Kelowna to set up shop at the EZ Fuel station north of Oliver on Highway 97. From her truck you can see Covert Farms to the west and the Jackson-Trigg’s winery east across the highway. The intersection is the beginning of the famous Black Sage Road so starting or ending a tour here is easy. The portions are generous and tasty. I recommend the pad thai with prawns.

20130813-221309.jpgMr. Spud – The original food truck in Oliver has been here for as long as I can remember (although I’ve only lived here for 5 and half years). They are also frequent vendors at the Festival of the Grape, which is where I’ve indulged in their fries often over the past few years. Their home base is usually in the lot next to the government liquor store across from A&W.

So there you go – creative choices for some great quick eats when on a wine tour in the Oliver area.

Cheers from wine country!